In 2001, Scottish director Neil Marshall released Dog Soldiers, a much needed film that breathed fresh life into the werewolf sub-genre. While it had its U.S. premiere on the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel, it was—much unlike anything else that premiered on that network—a critical success. The movie had a lot going for it, from the tone to the werewolf designs, the suspense, and the uniqueness of being a horror feature with a virtually all male cast. In that regard, it was similar to Predator, but there’s much less debate as to whether or not Dog Soldiers is horror film.
In the few years following its release, Dog Soldiers became something of a cult hit. By no means did it make Marshall a household name, but it allowed him to keep working in the industry and gain some cred in the indie horror circles. More importantly, it allowed the opportunity to make another horror film, possibly a riskier one. That movie, of course, was The Descent. And here we are, still chatting about it over ten years later, because it’s a masterpiece.
The Descent took the casting concept of Dog Soldiers and flipped it to make it even more unique. Considering that he had made a mostly male cast work, Marshall selected a virtually all female cast for The Descent. This is a much rarer occurrence in the horror field. Even though horror movies almost always have female protagonists, they rarely have female dominated casts.
But The Descent is so much more than its casting decisions. It wouldn’t work if it had nothing else to offer but the cast as a selling point. We’re still talking about The Descent because it is a damn scary movie. It works on both an emotional and a visceral level. We’re scared by the concept, but we’re doubly scared because we care about the characters. The film does a very good job of setting up the friendship between these women before everything goes south.
But one of the most brilliant things about the picture is that it already is picking up with these women after everything has gone south. This is the first get-together between these friends since protagonist Sarah lost her husband and child in a horrible accident. She’s here to be among friends and recover. They’re comforting her as best as they can. The whole idea is, as she is told later on, that the worst thing that could possibly happen to her has already happened. Or so she thinks.
The Descent is about a situation that starts out bad and gets progressively worse, yet it manages to do this without feeling bleak. It doesn’t have a heavy, existential or nihilistic tone. Somehow, Marshall achieves the perfect balance of giving us characters in such a fragile state and still making the film as a whole feel fun. It’s a thrill ride, but one that’s handled perfectly without ever compromising its characters or story.
This movie is scary before the monsters ever show up, which is an amazing achievement. I’m not just talking about the mounting sense of dread and suspense, either. It’s terrifying. There are genuine scares before we even get a glimpse of the crawlers. It’s already a full fledged horror picture before those creatures even begin to pick off the girls; their appearance is really just the cherry on top. It’s suspenseful and spooky and it could be about people getting trapped in a cave and turning on each other. Caves, tight spaces, absolute darkness, these are all scary things. The little monsters are lit perfectly in that we see only enough to know what’s going on and the rest is pitch black. The cave tunnels are never completely illuminated. The addition of monsters doesn’t take away any of The Descent’s credibility, it only adds to the terror and turns it from a suspenseful character piece into one of the best creature features of the last twenty years.
That’s not to say that people don’t turn on each other. One of the many scary elements going into this whirlpool of horror is the human element. When the horror starts and the girls are fighting their way out, one character—Juno—accidentally kills one of her best friends, who she mistakes for a crawler sneaking up on her. There’s not a lot said in this scene, it all comes through in performance, but you can tell that the only thing Juno’s terrified of in that moment is the fact that she’s not that bothered by what she’s just done.
The Descent builds and builds its terror to an ending that’s absolutely bleak, but not at all forced or unfitting. It’s where the picture was headed from the start, which makes it all the more frustrating that the U.S. cut of the film removed that ending. I’m sure most people have seen it, but spoilers for those who haven’t: Sarah has a dream of escaping the caves only to wake to find herself back in darkness with the crawlers closing in on her. The only thing more frustrating than ending the U.S. cut with Sarah’s escape is that the unnecessary sequel picked up from this version, even though by the time it came out, the original ending was the one most people had seen thanks to the unrated DVD release.
None of that takes away from this film or how well it works. It’s been over ten years and The Descent does not feel dated at all. It’s one of the absolute best of its decade and I think at this point, it’s ready to take its place among the all-time greats.